- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2001

Only occasionally do we observe true sea changes in culture and politics. When it comes to the topic of crime and punishment, however, there was a genuinely tidal reversal in American society during the 1980s and 1990s.

Think back just 20 years: In New York City, all the highway walls and subway cars were plastered with gang graffiti, aggressive panhandlers were legion, streets and trains were dangerous, and many people actually had the radios removed from their cars so thieves wouldn´t break in to steal them. (Owners would wave little white surrender flags in the form of signs reading "No Radio" placed in the side windows of their vehicles for the convenience of the thieves then running the streets.)

In that same era, Los Angeles County was suffering nearly 900 murders per year. Miami was experiencing the highest crime levels ever recorded since the feds starting gathering statistics. And in Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Boston, and many other cities, out-of-control crime was driving middle-class people to the ex-urban fringes and destroying center-city economies.

At that point, the American public reacted. Enough is enough, said voters. Up went police budgets (a tripling), new prison walls (a quadrupling of capacity), and support for capital punishment and trying violent juveniles in regular courts (doubling). Down went the soft-on-crime attitudes and practices that had taken root during the national nervous breakdown we call the 1960s. In came stern, reform-minded new mayors such as Rudy Giuliani in New York City and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles.

But over the last year or so, we may have passed another threshold. Renewed activist hammering against capital punishment has recently edged public opinion in a softer direction on this and other crime questions. A couple of ugly scandals, plus endless drum-beating about police brutality, seem to have undermined citizen support for cops. It has also made cops less willing to take personal risks to make streets safer.

The effects of all these changes may already be showing up in statistics. After tumbling for most of a decade, crime actually edged up in the last year in places like Los Angeles (where the police have been eviscerated after a corruption scandal) and New York (where movie stars and rabble-rousers spent much of 2000 picketing police stations under the instigation of Al Sharpton). Violent crime was up more than 7 percent in Los Angeles, with homicides jumping 28 percent. The kinder and gentler NYPD, meanwhile, has yielded double-digit increases in homicide rates over recent quarters (after five years when murders were reduced by more than two-thirds).

Now many of the tough, steely public administrators who engineered our recent crime rollback like Mayors Giuliani and Riordan are leaving office. And in both New York and Los Angeles, as well as in other places, it looks as though the replacements will be liberal throwbacks. Having new captains at the helm will affect crime-fighting. If the pressure from City Hall to eradicate lawlessness eases up (or very possibly even reverses, on "progressive" or "civil rights" grounds), control of our urban streets could revert to the bad guys surprisingly quickly.

Could we again begin to see "No Radio" signs, in-your-face panhandling, and gunshots on street corners in American neighborhoods? Indeed we could.

Given our big new investments in prisons, police and the like, it will take real effort to throw away the law-and-order progress won over the last two decades. But the consensus against crime that got us on today´s downward path may be eroding. Should we lose our hard-won sense of realism and let the fight against crime be undercut by ideologues and activists, we could slip back to the bad old days much faster than many people realize.

Karl Zinsmeister is the editor-in-chief of The American Enterprise, whose June issue is devoted to current crime issues.

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